Elizabeth Lizberg’s smile fills a room — inviting you to join in her ongoing celebration of life and light. This natural quality is a boon in her job as executive director of Boise-based Camp Rainbow Gold, an organization that provides a chance for kids battling cancer to take a break from their disease, connect with each other and enjoy the Idaho mountains.
“I love, love my job,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Lizberg moved to Boise as a kid with her family from Atlanta, Ga., when her dad came to work in the family’s hotel business. Since she earned her business degree, she’s sought ways to help people — first by aiding seniors in the retirement community industry, then helping abused children at St. Luke’s Children at Risk Evaluation Services.
“It was good work to do, but as a mother, it was starting to get difficult for me to be there,” she says.
Then her brother, Downtown Boise bar owner Ted Challenger, told her about Camp Rainbow Gold. He had started volunteering for the group on a dare in 2001 and continues to do so today. When the executive director’s position opened up, “he called me and said, ‘You have to come do this. It’s so you,’ ” she says.
And he was right. It’s a perfect fit for this sunny, savvy businesswoman.
Lizberg took the reins in 2007. At the time, Camp Rainbow Gold ran one summer camp under the umbrella of the American Cancer Society. In 2014, that relationship ended when the national ACS cut its pediatric camps across the country to better focus on funding life-saving research.
“I was so shocked the day they told me,” she says. “But looking back, the writing was on the wall. I should have seen it. For us, it’s been amazing. It opened so many doors. We now have a stronger identity, and we can better fundraise and grow.”
Under her leadership, Camp Rainbow Gold today runs five camps during the year: two family camps (spring and winter), summer camps for teens and children battling cancer, plus a separate week for their siblings at campgrounds around Sun Valley.
It offers year-round support programs for kids and teens, and a college scholarship program for Camp Rainbow Gold kids. The group engages dozens of passionate volunteers and supporters and now is outgrowing its offices on Jefferson Street in Downtown Boise.
Last summer, the group made a big leap by upgrading its medical capabilities with a new, state-of-the-art mobile oncology care unit that travels to the campsite. Now, it’s the focus for FUNDSY, a biennial community fundraiser that helps nonprofits with capital campaigns. The event in May also will celebrate 50 years of FUNDSY in the Treasure Valley.
The trailer cost $200,000. Camp Rainbow Gold raised $50,000 initially and took out a loan for the rest, Lizberg says. A successful FUNDSY campaign will retire that remaining debt.
Camp Rainbow Gold is a magical place. Kids who deal with being sick and feeling different every day of their lives can just be kids at summer camp. Their disabilities seem to diminish and their abilities shine as Lizberg and her crew of volunteers try to make miracles happen. They make friends, share their experiences, dress up and have fun — together.
“One of the most common things we hear from kids is that they don’t feel alone anymore,” she says.
It was founded in 1985 by Dave McClusky, a Twin Falls surgeon who was inspired by an 8-year-old cancer patient who just wanted to be “normal” and go to camp. Vickie Mueller, who worked at the American Cancer Society and still volunteers for Camp Rainbow Gold, applied for and received a $5,000 grant, and McClusky and a few volunteers took a handful of kids camping in McCall. Camp Rainbow Gold became one of the first pediatric oncology camps in the nation.
Today, between 45 and 50 kids attend each week of oncology camp at Cathedral Pines near Ketchum. Eighty kids attend the sibling camp each summer, but about 25 kids get turned away because the camp is at its maximum capacity. There are about 300 Idaho families in the Camp Rainbow Gold community. Any kid diagnosed with cancer can attend for free. That also is true after treatment, and even if the cancer goes into remission.
“Cancer doesn’t end when treatment ends,” Lizberg says. “It impacts the whole family forever.”
Lizberg and the Camp Rainbow Gold team work closely with St. Luke’s, which provides the nurses and an oncologist for the camps.
Kids return to Camp Rainbow Gold year after year, even after moving out of the state. The farthest a kid comes now is from Georgia, though most are from the southern part of Idaho. Some grow up and become volunteers.
“We aspire for that to happen,” Lizberg says. “However, some of our kids with the more severe cancers can’t do that. They want to stay involved and we don’t want to say goodbye. So we started — and we don’t advertise — a young adult camp within our teen camp. Some have problems from the chemo, some have had brain surgery, and some have autism or Down syndrome in addition to their cancer.”
When Lizberg gets out of the office, it’s to the mountains around Ketchum for each week of camp. She oversees the hard work of her staff and volunteers with the campers. She most enjoys time in the art shack and participating in activities with the campers like archery and a carnival.
“It’s the hardest and most rewarding work you can imagine,” she says.
How much does it cost to send a kid to camp?
It costs about $2,000 to send one kid to camp from application to the bus ride home. One of the reasons it’s that expensive is that we bring everything up with us from the bicycles to art supplies and now the medical trailer.
How do you handle it when kids pass away?
That is always the hardest thing, to lose one of our kids. We lose campers all the time. Little Rashid was just all over the news when the Boise Police Department made him an officer for a day in August. (He died in December.) You learn so much from those little ones. It helps you remember why you’re doing this. On the first Monday of camp we have a memorial to remember those campers who died in the past year. Only once in my time here do I remember a year when no one died. We had a celebration of life. It (the memorial) is voluntary. We all grieve differently, but they’re on our hearts and our minds constantly.
How do you see camp growing?
We want to reach more families and kids. That’s why getting this medical trailer was so crucial. Parents need to know their kids will be taken care of and are safe. Right now, the campsite is limited. We want our own campground someday that can be built for our needs and the needs of our kids.
If you weren’t working at Camp Rainbow Gold, what would you be doing?
If a paycheck is involved, I’d be working at another nonprofit in a role that allows me to practice my love for business while supporting others. Otherwise, I’d be traveling our beautiful world.
What drives you each day?
Wanting to be a good role model for my daughter, Sophie.
What do you do for fun (i.e. What do you do to relieve stress)?
Listen to music. Loud. I usually just hit random on my playlist.
What three movies would you most like to watch on a trans-Atlantic flight?
Anything Robin Williams, with my top picks being “Good Will Hunting,” “Patch Adams” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
Who or what inspires you?
Our volunteers. I witness a level of giving on a daily basis from our community that comes from the heart and does not require reward. I am humbled by the compassion, commitment and love that volunteers give to support our programs and the families we serve.
Did/do you have a mentor?
My parents, my grandparents — my entire family!
Dog or a cat? Wine or beer?
Love dogs and cats but have allergies that prevent me from being a furry owner. Wine.
In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?
Bill Gates. I’d love to pick his brain about leadership and philanthropy. He embraces what I believe to be a good balance of business and giving back.
What motto do you live by?
We all make mistakes. It is how you respond to those mistakes that matters.
Where do you like to take out-of-town guests?
Saturday markets in Downtown Boise. I enjoy the local produce and checking out the styles of local artists. I like going without a plan and buying everything needed to prepare a dinner for the evening.
What’s on your bedside reading table?
“Gift of Life,” by Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Henri Landwirth and J. P. Hendricks.
What’s on your playlist?
The Piano Guys. They were brilliant at the Morrison Center. The other music on my playlist is a plethora of ’80s and classic rock.
What is your guilty pleasure?
“Grey’s Anatomy” with a glass of Cab, although right now my current favorite is a blend from Cinder.
FUNDSY celebrates 50 years of helping
Since FUNDSY started in 1967, it has raised $7.4 million and has changed the face of the city in significant ways. It has built hospital rooms, theaters, offices, dance studios, shelters for people and animals, art exhibit spaces and more. In 2014, FUNDSY raised more than $200,000 for Create Common Good, a nonprofit that trains and finds jobs for adult refugees and people coming out of difficult situations.
When you have FUNDSY on your side, it’s like a touch of magic, says Create Common Good CEO Tracy Hitchcock. “It’s amazing to be recognized by an organization with such deep roots in the Treasure Valley. It’s a total feather in our cap.”
FUNDSY started as “Funds Serving the Y” as an annual building campaign to support the Treasure Valley Family YMCA. In 1970, organizers recast it as a communitywide benefit, “Funds Serving You.” It moved to a biennial event in 1972.
It specifically focuses on capital campaigns for building and equipment, which are difficult dollars to raise. Past FUNDSY beneficiaries include the Bogus Basin Foundation, the Idaho Humane Society, Terry Reilly Health Services, Learning Lab, The Assistance League and many more.
This year, the organization is celebrating 50 years of the community coming together to support nonprofits, says Remy Pop, a Boise financial manager who has volunteered for FUNDSY for 12 years.
Nonprofits apply to FUNDSY every two years.The committee must unanimously decide on one of the finalists to be that cycle’s beneficiary.
“We have a dual mandate to raise money and awareness by celebrating our great nonprofit organizations,” Pop says. “Every cycle is a different deal. FUNDSY partners with each charity, so we in a sense get to become that charity for two years. We work closely together, and that’s the fun of it for me.”
FUNDSY events include its sold-out Boise gala May 7 and a golf tournament that was in September. Look for the next golf tournament in 2017. Learn more at FUNDSY.org.